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United Way programs keep kids in school

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Kiana Eastmond, a former high school drop out, took a summer program that led to her enrolment Centennial College for business administration. SARAH DEA FOR THE TORONTO STAR.Louise Brown Education Reporter

Just four months ago, Kiana Eastmond didn’t see herself as a college student. Never mind that she has done some 10,000 hours of community service, sits on the board of East Metro Youth Services, is part of a youth round table advising the Nuclear Waste Management Organization – she’s 23 — and serves as a leader for, ironically, a Scarborough group promoting education.

Nearly 10 years after she dropped out of high school, Eastmond still had a mental block about higher learning. But a six-week summer course at Centennial College demystified the ivory tower — she even became valedictorian — and now she is enrolled in business management at the Scarborough campus.

“The program is officially called HYPE — Helping Youth Pursue Education – but they should really call it the No Excuse program because it leaves you with no excuse not to go on to higher education,” said Eastmond. Launched with the help of the United Way, although now funded by the college, HYPE illustrates the importance the agency puts on keeping young Toronto in school.

“They help you with the red tape for applying for a student loan. They cover the $130 application fee and give people like me who had trouble with regular school an idea what post-secondary is really like,” raved Eastmond.

Tony Bertin, manager of community outreach for Centennial, explained why it works.

“In six weeks on campus we try to reduce as many potential barriers as we can, including giving them free breakfast and lunch and free transportation to school and giving them a taste of the academic expectations at the college level.”

More than 400 students have graduated from the summer program since 2007 in such courses as auto body and mechanics, computer training, office administration, human development and hair styling. They also get life skills from financial literacy to conflict resolution, and begin to connect with people from beyond their neighbourhood through campus barbecues and movie nights.

For this, they earn a special interest college credit.

Across town in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood, another program supported by the United Way also works to keep young people at risk in school. Success Beyond Limits, inspired by the former program Promoting Excellence, is a summer program for struggling students entering Westview Centennial Secondary School, and they continue to get support with after-school mentors, tutors, free snacks and transportation home.

The mentors themselves, senior students at Westview, sometimes find their own footing through helping others.

“I wasn’t doing very well one year – I was on edge – and the principal suggested I mentor to keep me out of trouble, and now I know that’s what I want to do with my life,” said Andrew Newsome, 20, now in second year at Humber College for social work.

Shyann Witter graduated from Westview in June and is now studying social services at Humber, largely inspired by being a mentor with the program.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes about Jane-Finch but we can choose to be on the right track,” said the 18-year-old who now wants to earn her master’s in social work.

With so many programs focusing on young people, the United Way has created a new network to foster the sort of brainstorming and tip-sharing that can be difficult when agencies struggle in isolation.

Called the Community of Practice of Youth Educational Attainment Partnerships, the group provides a regular discussion forum for more than 90 organizations from United Way agencies to the Toronto District School Board, local colleges and universities and youth groups. Representatives meet in person every other month to discuss ways to encourage keeping young people in school, and every two weeks a report highlights new research and tips from around the world.

“I got introduced to Mixed Theatre Company through this forum, a group I wouldn’t typically have had the opportunity to meet,” said Bertin about the interactive theatre troupe that helps audiences think about how to handle personal problems, from bullying to drug abuse.

“Now we’re seeing the potential it has to get involved in (campus) orientations. The Community of Practice is a unique venue; it lets partnerships develop.”


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